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Bah, Humbug! What Scrooge Can Teach Us About Growth and Transformation
By J. Scott Janssen, MSW, LCSW

It must be the holiday season. The wreaths are up, the menorahs are out, and I’m thinking about Jack. It’s been several years since he died of lung cancer, but I always think about him this time of year.

It was a cold and blustery day with a gray winter sky when we had a talk that changed his life. As usual, he was complaining about how his kids were letting him down and avoiding him like the plague. Amid his complaints, a scene from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol popped into my mind: Ebenezer Scrooge has retired to his room after spending the day browbeating Bob Cratchit and lecturing gentlemen collecting for the poor on the evils of charity. As the old man sips his soup, the ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley, arrives, pulling a long, heavy chain with him. It’s a chain that was forged during his life as he spent his time valuing selfish pursuits over people. He carries it as a reminder of the choices he made. Scrooge also is forging such a chain, and the time for changing course is running out.

The events following Marley’s visit help Scrooge see that he has been hurting others and sabotaging any chances for real human connections. Three ghosts help him explore the origins of his negative beliefs and behavior patterns, see the impact they’re having on him and those around him, and foresee the consequences if he does not start making new choices and begin living in a new way. I wondered what these ghosts would do with Jack.

When they were younger, Jack had tried to shape his children’s behavior through inflexible rules, ample criticism, corporal punishment, and withholding affection except under extraordinary circumstances. Now they wanted nothing to do with him. In his mind, he had been building character and instilling a work ethic so they could survive in a cold world. I imagined a long chain wrapped around Jack’s withered frame.

Exploring the Past
When the Ghost of Christmas Past appears, Scrooge visits a time before his life was narrowed by chronic anger and an obsession with money, a time when he still knew friendship and had hope for the future before work and profit pushed people aside. Insight stirs as he sees the way his ambition and greed emerged as defenses concealing secret sorrows.

This ghost would have some rough ground to cover with Jack, who was born into dire poverty. His father abandoned the family, and his mother was a violence-prone alcoholic who once beat him so savagely that she knocked him unconscious.

Could this ghost help Jack see inside the heart and mind of this little boy trying his best to survive such chaos? What hopes and fears might he till up? Would Jack feel compassion for the frightened boy who still lived somewhere inside his psyche, who had learned to build walls and rely on no one but himself? Might he see the ways trauma had undermined his trust in others, fueled his anger, and pushed his children away?

Understanding the Present
When the Ghost of Christmas Present visits Scrooge, he sees how his actions are hurting others, getting glimpses into the lives, feelings, hopes, and struggles of people he had dismissed. In short, he begins to learn empathy, and empathy opens his heart.

I wonder where this apparition would take Jack. Maybe they would visit his oldest daughter, Meg, and look over her shoulder as she sat down to a holiday meal with her husband and children. Would his name come up in conversation? If so, what would they say? Perhaps he’d see Meg expressing affection and giving praise to her children—things he’d almost never done. Would Jack, like Scrooge, begin to see the ways his words and actions had affected her?

I’d spoken with Meg twice over the phone. She said she respected her father but had no intention of exposing old wounds to the salt of his disapproving looks, anger, and criticism. She had made two things clear: He would have to take the first step if their relationship was to improve, and she had no confidence that his pride would allow him to do so.

Maybe this ghost and Jack would eavesdrop on snippets of private conversations between Meg and her husband during which she voiced such thoughts. Maybe they’d visit his other daughter, Callie, as she and her mother met away from the home so she could avoid her father’s wrath.

For Scrooge, seeing his impact on others kindles the flame of empathy and compassion. Would Jack have the same experience? Would he see that his rigid beliefs had their origin in a little boy’s loneliness and trauma, and that these beliefs were undermining his relationships with his children?

Changing the Future
Chances are the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come would have gotten Jack’s attention. For Scrooge, this specter drives home a fact about which Jack already was painfully aware: He was going to die. The spirit’s message is that Scrooge’s life will end in bitterness and isolation if he doesn’t take a new direction, an insight that motivates him to transform, literally, overnight.

It’s interesting how many time-worn Christmas stories echo this confidence that transformation and growth are possible regardless of what has come before. The Grinch who stole Christmas has a pivotal experience that opens his heart. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer embarks on a difficult journey over the course of which he discovers that what he thought of as a weakness actually is a source of great strength. Rudolph’s antagonist, the Abominable Snow Monster, has his defenses (in this case, his teeth) removed and finds new meaning through social engagement and community. The Winter Warlock, who appears in Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, has his icy exterior melted by a single act of kindness offered by someone who sees a being in need of love beneath his grim persona.

I looked at Jack as he continued his litany of complaints, wondering what it would take for such a transformation to occur. In holiday shows, everything always falls neatly into place just in time: Santa arrives to rescue the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys, and Charlie Brown’s scruffy little Christmas tree blossoms into a holiday centerpiece. In real life, such change, if it comes at all, often comes over time after great effort. But this doesn’t mean we can’t learn valuable lessons from the Grinch or Scrooge.

These holiday stories share a conviction that everyone has within them the power to change, and that the ingredients for realizing this power are empathy and the ability to shift perspective about what is important. In a sense, each of the characters mentioned comes up with a new story to guide their lives.

Social workers are well aware of the power the stories we tell ourselves have in determining our beliefs, actions, and experience as well as the quality of our relationships. We may refer to these as explanatory styles, life scripts, dominant narratives, automatic thoughts, and so on, but basically we’re talking about stories.

Realizing the Situation
During prior visits, I’d tried to help Jack get at the root of his situation using exploratory and insight-oriented questions with no luck. Exploring the past had fallen flat, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t create a new story, access a new inner vision, about the future and its possibilities.

I raised my hand, interrupting his criticism-laden monologue. When he paused, I pretended to change the subject as though I hadn’t been listening to a word he said. “Did you ever see any of those children’s Christmas specials when your kids were growing up, Jack? Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Frosty the Snowman? Ebenezer Scrooge?”

After grumbling about whether I meant this as a serious question, Jack acknowledged he had “suffered through” such shows during more than one holiday season. I pointed out that in all these stories, characters were stuck in patterns of thinking, feeling, and relating that caused pain and suffering. Then, at the last minute, something dramatic happened that gave them a new way of being.

“What if you’re one of those characters, Jack?” I asked him. “And what if it’s 15 minutes ’til Santa’s flight? What’s the script for how you are going to wrap up this story so that you can have a happy ending? Time is running out. You’re dying. What needs to happen?”

After complaining that he didn’t believe in happy endings, he decided to play along. “I guess what would need to happen is my kids would have some kind of realization about how wrong they’ve been and...”

I interrupted him, “You’re the one with the power in this story, Jack. You’re the one who sets the change in motion, not your kids.”

He thought for a moment. “Well, maybe what would happen is I’d learn to overlook their acting irresponsibly.”

I made a sour face and shook my head. “Can we put it in a kinder, less judgmental way?”

He thought about it. “Maybe I’d realize they might think they have reasons for what they’re doing. Reasons I haven’t understood.”

That was the insight that let him begin to engage his inner vision. We bounced around ideas, and by the time we were done, Jack had a new script. I asked if we could get his wife involved in the conversation so she would know the storyline and be able to help.

When she joined us, Jack, preferring to call it a battle plan, gave her the outline. “Me and the kids have a wall between us,” he acknowledged. “It doesn’t matter how it got there; what matters is how I’m going to tear it down.”

He admitted that he’d been hard on his daughters over the years, thinking he was helping them but acknowledging he’d overdone it. Now was the time to make it clear that he was proud of them, loved them, and wanted to see them.

I asked if there was anything else he wanted to make sure they knew, and he said, “I want them to know I’m sorry that I hurt them.”

In the End
We fleshed out some concrete steps he would take and strategized about how he would handle inevitable frustrations. When I got up to leave, Jack smiled and said, “I don’t believe in make-believe endings, but I’ve been to war, and I believe there’s a time for making peace.”

If this were one of those Christmas stories, everything was perfect after that. But this is a real-life Christmas story. Jack still fell into criticizing, got impatient, and lost his temper, especially as he needed more and more physical help. We had several follow-up visits during which he had to really work to refocus on the new storyline. But, overall, he held the new script close enough to the center of his heart that he changed the last part of his life for himself and his family in meaningful ways. His kids came around for visits after he found the courage to ask. Importantly, Jack found ways to deliver messages of love. And, in his indirect, tangential way, he asked for forgiveness. When he died, his daughter Meg was sitting by his side.

Final Thoughts
In a sense, Jack’s story, that of a flesh-and-blood human being doing his best, loses nothing when compared with Scrooge or the Grinch. Maybe these holiday stories are simply visions, however idealized, of our deepest dreams and longings. Maybe the value of such visions lays not in their perfect attainment but in their ability to move us in the right direction and sustain us when we fall off course. They remind us that change is possible only if we can find a more nurturing story to guide our steps, find that place within with the courage to believe in the magical power of love (call it Christmas spirit if you like), and help us make new choices even as the clock nears midnight.

Jack didn’t have the picture-perfect ending where everything is tied up neatly with a shiny bow, but it was good enough.

— J. Scott Janssen, MSW, LCSW, has been a hospice social worker for 20 years and currently works for Duke Hospice in Durham, NC. He authored the book The Dawn Is Never Far Away: Stories of Loss, Resilience, and the Human Journey.